Have you noticed how much American history is on the air right now?
First and foremost are all those shows about second-hand stuff – particularly the shows such as “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars” on History Channel that reveal the histories of the collectible objects they encounter.
Then there are all the military history shows, particularly those on Military Channel, plus all the shows about great construction projects, shows such as “Modern Marvels” – the shows that tell you the histories of great dams, bridges and skyscrapers.
But there’s a ton of other great history shows on TV too, and the nation’s birthday is a perfect time to present a list of some of our faves:
“Antiques Roadshow”: This PBS warhorse (check local listings) is still capable of serving up historic gems, such as a story we saw recently on one of its compilation episodes (in which clips from old shows are rearranged for “theme shows”). This story – which is summarized on PBS.org here — had to do with a necklace someone brought in. And before we knew it, the appraiser was telling this necklace owner a tale about a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln’s – Gen. Daniel Sickles, whose much-younger wife was carrying on an affair with the son of Francis Scott Key, composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was a very eye-opening yarn, to say the least!
“How the States Got Their Shapes”: This series, hosted by Brian Unger, is our new favorite history show. And it’s on History Channel, airing Tuesdays at 10 p.m./9c (and other times). This is a great way to learn the history of America – it turns out there’s a great story (or several stories) about how each of the borders of our various states were determined. This show never fails to fascinate, and we highly recommend it.
“American Experience”: Every once in a while, this long-running PBS series reminds us how valuable public television can be – although the problem with public TV these days is that quality documentaries are no longer unique to public broadcasting. Still, this series has set a standard of quality that was driven home the other day when we watched Part 2 of “Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided” (check local listings). We loved this documentary when it premiered 10 years ago, and it’s lost none of its poignance.
“Great Planes”: We love all the “list” shows on Military Channel, especially this one, seen Friday nights at 10/9c. On a recent episode, former World War II fighter pilots – now in their late 80s – were seen climbing into the cockpits of the same planes they flew so heroically in the great war. To hear them talk about what it felt to fly the planes, as if it was only yesterday, was a priceless experience – all the more so because the ranks of that generation of heroes are thinning so quickly these days. Whether they’re counting down great planes, tanks or naval craft, we love these gung-ho Military Channel shows.